Lessons Learned in Making Training Stick

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Learning

Lessons Learned in Making Training Stick

Training is big business. According to ASTD, U.S. organizations spent $156 billion last year on employee learning and development. Bersin by Deloitte reports that "in 2012, U.S. companies spent an average of $706 per learner." Yet, when training professionals come together, the conversation invariably (and quickly) turns to concern about the return on this investment.

Teaching new knowledge and skills is easy. Making sure they find expression in the workplace is the greater challenge. Because in today's hyper-busy, priorities-overloaded environment, the transfer of learning from the classroom to the job too frequently gets short-shrift.

Training simply doesn't stick.

No more Teflon® training

Increasingly, training and development departments are realizing that they must invest as much time, attention, and funds to making training stick, as they do to the training itself!

They're studying and addressing the myriad conditions and factors that enable or undermine learners' ability to absorb and make productive use of new skills and information.

They're realizing that they can promote more secure adherence and training stickiness by using the ‘VELCRO' approach.

VELCRO makes for "sticky training" by building:

  • Value to the individual
  • Engagement
  • Leader support
  • Culture of learning
  • Relevance
  • Optimism

Value to the individual

Let's face it. No one makes a change until or unless they understand what's in it for them. Learners are no exception.

Changing behavior requires overcoming inertia; to be willing to put in that effort, people must be ‘sold' on the value they'll receive.

Sometimes it's in terms of on-the job performance and being able to address real-life problems they encounter. Other times it's in terms of personal successes and the ability to use new skills in contexts outside of the job.

Either way, the individual business and human cases create a compelling (and non-negotiable) springboard for learning that will take hold.


The evolving field of brain science has provided invaluable data for learning and development practitioners. MRIs and other technologies reveal best design and development practices.

Research confirms what effective trainers have surmised for years: that engaging elements such as movement, variety of methods and activities, dialogue (vs. lecture), and imagery all support greater learning and transfer.

How training is scheduled is also a factor. Spacing training over time creates stickier outcomes than a ‘once and done' implementation.

And numerous studies support the efficacy of interleaving (which is essentially cross-training for the mind). Shorter spurts of intermixed content drive greater engagement and results than intensive, repetitive (drill-‘em-‘til-they've-got-it-or-they're-dead) strategies.

Leader support

It's not news to anyone who's offered or attended training that management support plays a pivotal role in the extent to which learning actually transfers to new and different behavior on the job.

When leaders model the skills taught, it sends a powerful message. And when they take the time to provide feedback and coaching, employees attach greater significance to what they've learned.

But, when leaders hold their people accountable for putting new skills into practice, this really puts teeth into the process.

In classic research, Taylor et al. (2005) and Longnecker (2004) scientifically measured that learning transfer increases in the presence of accountability.

Learning contracts, tracking relevant metrics, and including the use of new skills in performance appraisals all demonstrate a high degree of leader support and encourage training to stick.

Culture of learning

Just as important to the stickiness of training is the culture in which employees find themselves trying to use new skills.

Do current policies and practices support new behaviors? Are incentives and rewards aligned? Is there a system of support among peers and an ongoing dialog around development? Does the organization have a growth mindset or mastery orientation? See this video for a more detailed explanation on what growth mindset and mastery orientation mean:

In too many cases, the corporate culture a trainee returns to is not even neutral or benign... it actually discourages people from trying new approaches. If the risks associated with failure exceed the potential benefits of applying new skills, behavior will remain unchanged.

But, when there's a culture that values effort and views failure as a vehicle for learning and growth, employees can get enough experience using what they've learned to build new patterns and habits... and in the process, training sticks.


Perhaps the most under-rated of all training stickiness factors is relevance.

In an era of resource optimization, it's easy to adopt a "more butts in the seat is better" mentality with training. It's easy to figure that since the class is running anyway, let's fill it with a few others who may need the skills down the line. This "just in case" training that doesn't support job responsibilities might be interesting, but it's irrelevant and anything but sticky.

You can build learner relevance through any number of strategies:

  • Timing: Relevance grows exponentially when training is offered just after a challenging situation or failure. People understand on a visceral level the importance of the skill and know how it will help them in the future.
  • Context: Employees are more motivated to learn and change when they appreciate the connection between what's being learned and their own performance opportunities or shortcomings. So, timing 360-degree or other feedback tools to precede training can help connect the dots.
  • Design: The stickiness of learning grows when the knowledge that participants have acquired to date is understood, honored, and acknowledged. New concepts must be related to what's known. Rehearsal and practice of new skills must be realistic. In this way, learning is relevant to the individual.


Training stickiness depends upon individuals feeling confident that they'll be successful undertaking new skills or behaviors.

So effective training inspires a sense of optimism by allowing for practice under safe conditions and building a sense of comfort with new skills/approaches.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, dedicating time during training to explore pitfalls and relapse conditions can actually enhance the sense of hopefulness back on the job.

And helping people focus on the difference they'll made to others can be a powerful change strategy as well, as discovered by Adam Grant and others.

To make training stick, look beyond training design

Training stickiness depends upon a variety of factors, many of which go far beyond training design. Put any of these VELCRO elements into practice and you'll see improvement. Put them all in place, and you'll see new skills cemented into practice... and an enviable return on your training investment.

Your turn: What techniques to do you use to make training stick?

The Benefits of Mapping Learning With Competencies

Learn how mapping learning activities to the competencies they\'re designed to develop can help improve training stickiness.

Cover of the book
Cover of the book

The Benefits of Mapping Learning With Competencies

Learn how mapping learning activities to the competencies they\'re designed to develop can help improve training stickiness.


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